The Enchanted Kingdom:
Reflections On The Talking Book

by Barbara Pierce

Copyright © 1995
National Federation of the Blind

          As the poet Robert Service said, there is a hunger "not of the belly kind that's filled with bacon and beans." There is the hunger of a blind child who wants contact with the world around her. Barbara Pierce is the wife of a college professor, the mother of three well-adjusted intelligent children in young adulthood and the President of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio. She has worked as the assistant alumni director of Oberlin College, but it was not always like that. She remembers.

          When I was nine my father walked in from work one day carrying a large, heavy case. My brother and I were consumed with curiosity and my smugness and self-importance knew no bounds when he explained that the box was for me. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the revolution that the heavy gray case would create in my life.

          The year was 1954 and the box was a Talking Book record player from the Library of Congress. If the President himself had presented me with the machine, I could not have been more astonished. I now know that, two years before, Congress had amended the Pratt-Smoot Act to include children in the Talking Book Program.

          But as I remember the lecture I was given that day, special arrangements had been made [I was certain that these had been at the highest levels of government], and it had been decided to allow me to read books on records because everyone knew what a careful and responsible girl I was. If I failed to operate the machine properly or (inconceivable catastrophe) if I broke one of the records, no other child would ever be given the privilege that I now saw shimmering on my horizon.

          The record player was set up in the downstairs bedroom, and I began to read. "The Privateer" by Gordon Daviot, "Little Men" by Louisa May Alcott and "Bless This House" by Norah Lofts: these were the first three books. I promised myself that I would memorize the author of every book I read and the order in which I had consumed their work. I did pretty well at it for the first twenty books or so, but then I began to understand just how many books a person really could read and my good intentions dissolved.

          Within a week the Talking Book machine was moved to my room so that the rest of the family didn't have to listen along with me. My bedroom never had much heat and that winter I could only keep my hands warm by holding them over the glowing red light that indicated that the machine motor was turned on. I was lucky that those record players in the fifties threw out so much heat; otherwise frost bite would have found a contented victim.

          Until that intoxicating day when the Talking Book program walked into my life, I had had two choices when I wanted or needed to read a book. First, I could don a pair of heavy glasses with tremendous magnification in one lens; hunch over the page of print in very bright light; and struggle letter by letter to decipher the text, praying the while for a picture or, better yet, lots of pictures to take up space.

          My other alternative was to lie in wait for a member of my family. My brother, seven at the time, was good for comic books and not much more. Unfortunately, he favored Superman, and I preferred Scrooge McDuck. His verbal skills were taxed acutely by describing the pictures, and altogether Bobby was less satisfactory than my parents, if I could get them.

          I had already read "Heidi" and "Charlotte's Web" in ten-minute snatches, my mother's method of bribing me to do wretched eye exercises every day. My parents were generous with their time, but they were already helping me with every bit of my considerable homework, and there were limits to what even I was prepared to request. So the Talking Book machine and those amazing twelve-inch records played at 33 1/3 rpm really did change my life.

          I became the envy of my classmates. Not held down by such annoyances as vocabulary and spelling, I sailed into uncharted waters beyond my years. Teachers could easily be dazzled by book reports on the works of Dickens, Hawthorne and Dostoyevsky. There were also those occasional passages which I found very illuminating but which I knew instinctively my parents had much better not overhear.

          I know now that, had Braille been offered me in these formative years, I would today be a much better educated person, but it was to be another twenty years before I heard of the National Federation of the Blind, and there was no one in my life warning me that Braille was essential to my education.

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